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It feels like a debate erupts online over video game difficulty every few months. The most passionate want games as challenging as possible without compromise. Psychonauts 2 includes an invincibility mode where players can complete the game and earn achievements with the setting on; angry Twitter gamers view the option as “cheating.” A new Fromsoft game releases (e.g., Bloodborne, Demon’s Souls, Elden Ring), and a similar audience rushes to defend its unyieldingly high learning curve as creator intent.
I couldn’t disagree more with this whole “no easy mode” philosophy; it’s hardcore posturing that should have died off decades ago, back in the SNES era. To me, the proper difficulty is a settled issue: almost every game benefits from having at least one mode that lessens the challenge. We shouldn’t view difficulty as a matter of artist choice, but instead one of accessibility. A game’s challenge can be no different from colorblindness or physical handicaps, a barrier that all the practice and YouTube guides in the world can’t overcome.
Gaming distinguishes itself from other types of media with its element of interactivity. So for gaming to grow, it’s on game makers to make control approachable. The more easy modes available, the better.
I can already anticipate several counterarguments to my position here. What about preserving artistic intent? And besides, does every game have to cater to every kind of player? There are types of movies that many would find upsetting or distasteful, so why apply a different standard for gaming? What if a more forgiving playstyle ends up breaking the core gameplay loop?
There’s a clear counterargument to most of these concerns: don’t play on lower difficulties! Including easier difficulty options doesn’t affect the game for anyone who prefers a more punishing challenge.
I’m also curious how such an uncompromising position approaches traditional accessibility options. Today, many games swap colors to address color blindness. Players with motor skill challenges can skip rapid button taps, turn off the adaptive trigger resistance on a PS5’s DualSense, or reduce controller vibration feedback. The Last of Us Part II goes the extra mile with a special high contrast gameplay mode that mutes environmental colors while adding red and blue coloring to interactive elements (allies, enemies, items to pick up).
All these accessibility features “compromise” a game’s artistic intent. Changing the color palette to help colorblind players may no longer match aesthetically with the original visual direction. Players that skip button mash events or don’t have to squeeze hard on a PS5’s triggers lower the difficulty and have a less immersive experience. A high contrast gameplay mode can allow players to “cheat” to spot hidden enemies quickly.
Still, few would argue that the accessibility settings mentioned earlier settings are anything but a net positive. Yes, on paper, the game isn’t exactly as the game creators intended with accessibility modes enabled. But the settings open the game up for many who otherwise wouldn’t be able to participate at all.
So what happens once general difficulty inches closer to being a full blown accessibility feature? An expected retort here is that dumbed-down AI or fewer enemies onscreen isn’t the same as a colorblind mode or removing button taps. “Real” accessibility challenges – the colorblind, those hard of hearing or with physical disabilities – can’t improve over time. More practice, repetition, and well edited video tutorials will overcome a difficult challenge for the rest of us.
Such a “git gud” philosophy is myopic. Gamers inevitably age and slow down or aren’t blessed with the quickest reflexes. For them, the challenge is not a hill to overcome but a wall to bounce off. In my mind, the line separating a gamer with especially slow reflexes against someone colorblind can blur. If accessibility is essential to address for the latter, the former shouldn’t be that far behind.
Artistic intent best defines how the game presents an easy mode to the player, not if. We’ve evolved long past 90s game design where difficulty manifested as a terse upfront choice (easy, normal, hard). Now games can explicitly spell out the implications for different difficulty settings, including the mix the game was optimized against.
For games that view the more traditional upfront difficulty choice as a cop out, there are other ways to provide a more forgiving experience. Some games bury difficulty under accessibility options. Others only reveal an easier difficulty after the player fails to make progress over a set amount of time. Some can dynamically shift up or down difficulty based on player behavior.
For instance, the platformer Celeste has an assist mode in its accessibility options. The game provides granular options around invincibility, added jump abilities, and game slowdowns to make action timing easier. The racing game Forza Horizon 5 offers a range of AI difficulties but automatically suggests increasing or decreasing the challenge based on player performance over time.
Hades provides a unique “god mode” where the player gains extra resistance to damage on every unsuccessful playthrough. The game is a classic roguelike where repetition and failure are part of the experience. But in providing gradually improved resistance to enemies, developer Supergiant continuously nudges the player towards power on every run, making the game progressively more beatable without a “shortcut” in the form of a simple difficulty toggle. It’s a deft balance that preserves the genre’s intent while still assisting gamers looking for a more forgiving experience.
Not every game requires easier difficulty options, primarily those within the adventure and puzzle genre. Those games tend to have solvable solutions through a quick lookup on YouTube or another online walkthrough. I also tend to cut more slack on a game’s difficulty for smaller budget titles; these developers can fight tooth and nail just to ship the core experience.
Nevertheless, for most games, easier difficulty broadly is an accessibility issue and should be championed as such. More difficulties mean more players, and over in the long run, more fun. It’s a win win on all fronts.
Several times this year, I’ve written about the decline of theaters and the rise of streaming, exacerbated through the effects of the pandemic. While there has been a recent theatrical comeback for big franchise properties, smaller budget indies haven’t enjoyed the same success. It’s harder than ever to find movies that aren’t a gigantic four-quadrant blockbuster on the big screen. For the exception of those fortunate enough to live in a film hub like New York or LA, moviegoing is a bifurcated experience: Marvel, James Bond, and other mega family-friendly IPs play at every cineplex around town, transitioning over time to heavily marketed streaming, VOD, and Blu-ray opportunities. Everything else gets quietly dumped off direct to VOD or streaming.
That void in theatrical availability is a lost opportunity that streaming can’t replicate. Powerful sound on a giant screen can give an enveloping, immersive quality to a film. In an increasingly distracted world where multi-tasking is the norm, theaters are a rare setting optimized for focus on a particular movie image. Audience reactions – laughter, clapping, gasps, cheers – provide a unique character.
I’ve been hooked on Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS) since the game debuted on Series X consoles a few months ago. It’s honestly a surprise: unlike most games I gravitate towards, the simulator has few concrete objectives or “win” states. I spend 95% of my game time on direct flights between two airports with autopilot doing the heavy lifting. But it’s still an enormously compelling game. MSFS is competence porn on a sandbox of infinite replayability and high realism.
I use the word infinite without exaggeration; the game is dynamic in a way frankly no other modern title could hope to match. MSFS uses Bing maps satellite imagery and 3D photogrammetry to recreate the look of virtually any point on earth, streaming data in real time on a fast internet connection. The results are stunning, at least based on the recreations of places I’m familiar with.
The net effect means in MSFS I can take off, fly, and land practically anywhere in the world. As long I’m game enough to sightsee, it’s hard to get bored. I spent a few hours across several weeknights exploring the rural U.K. and Ireland. I’ve run acrobatic flights around Chicago and San Francisco to fly around skyscrapers and under bridges. One evening I flew up the Las Vegas strip, watching the mega casinos below pass by. And that’s only a fraction of what I could do; there are many countries on my shortlist to explore next.
Last week I caught a screening of Titane at the TIFF Bell Center here in Toronto, the first theater experience I’ve had in over a year and a half. It was an arresting ride with excellent sound, a high quality projection, and welcoming staff. But as the lights came up, even in a theater that can seat hundreds for an eight PM show, I counted only six people in the audience.
My knee jerk reaction was that a mix of pandemic caution and Titane‘s penchant for body horror and violence (Palme D’Or winner aside) kept many at home. But afterward, I had a sinking feeling the screening’s low attendance may be part of a larger trend.
Back in January, writing about the pandemic’s impact on cinema, I predicted theaters’ only path to survival would be on the backs of four quadrant blockbusters. Distributors would push smaller budget independent movies to VOD and streaming services. Ten months later, I’ve seen little to dissuade my opinion. Frankly, the state of indie movies in theaters is at best uncertain, at worst fairly bleak.
I was torn watching Sony’s recent PS5 showcase. It’s always exciting to see Sony’s first party content given their studios’ strong track record. However, almost every game was predictable and safe in a way I wouldn’t expect from Sony in an earlier era. Overall the event reminded me of Disney’s recent filmmaking output: lucrative, fun, but creatively a bit hollow.
Comparing Disney films to PlayStation games may sound like a stretch, but consider the parallels through the lens of PS5 first party games from the showcase. Disney loves remakes of beloved hits (The Lion King, Aladdin). Sony will release two remastered Uncharted games in a new collection. Disney leans on sequels of well tested hits like Toy Story and Cars. Sony showcased God of War Ragnarok and Gran Turismo 7. Also, Disney loves cranking out all things Marvel and Star Wars. Sony revealed teasers for Spider Man 2 and Wolverine. Stretching beyond first party content, Sony also gave prominent placement for a Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic remake and a new Guardians of the Galaxy game.
One of the hardest learnings from managing distributed teams for several years is that there is no single “best” environment for everyone on the team. Offices will eventually reopen with every individual strategizing what comes next. Some can’t wait to be in a busy, humming office five days a week. Others are cutting the cord entirely, moving away from big cities, and going fully remote. Some prefer a mixture of several days of the week in an office, the rest elsewhere.
It’s a challenging situation because managerial decisions around work environments can favor some and upset others. So over the years of managing engineers all over the country and across multiple time zones, I’ve established three simple rules to set expectations around work. Obviously companies have their own policies, so consider these more idealized or preferred for when there’s flexibility:
- For an engineer’s “core work” environment, we treat every individual as a full time remote employee.
- Outside of core work, we acknowledge experiences will be different. We strive for empathy, not equality, for this aspect of the job.
- As long as we equip individuals to do their best work, location, and in most cases time of day, is entirely up to them.
Even months removed from their initial play through, Genesis Noir and Observation have stuck with me. It’s not due to either game’s overall quality; both impress with plenty of initial style and swagger, only to narratively stumble in the final acts. Instead, it’s all about their daring approach to user interface and control scheme, both which change frequently throughout the story. The experiences I had with both games made me realize how thrilling it can be when gaming conventions are broken.
For most modern games, the UI and control setup remain consistent throughout the a playthrough. For example, in the most popular game genres today – first person shooters, third person action adventure, and sports – you use a controller’s analog sticks for movement and looking around. For shooter titles like Destiny 2 and the Call of Duty series, there are expected conventions on the HUD to show player health, ammo, and a mini map of the player’s surroundings.
Engineering managers get a high quantity and variety of inbound requests. At any point, you can be on the hook for the status of individual projects, career growth questions, support issues, and more. Questions and expected follow-ups can pop up in many contexts, be it 1:1s with reports, standups, or cross functional meetings. Managerial triage and delegation are commonplace that makes handling asks from all sides especially important.
However, none of this was apparent to me in my first engineering management role. Even when I caught up with reality, I naively expected to handle the increased load without issue. I organized my to dos in a trusted app setup. I could juggle taking detailed notes while simultaneously participating in meetings with ease. But at some point, a few months in as my number of reports increased and work volume spiked my system started to break down. I was dropping follow-ups. I would bury away action items in notes I would forget to review later. It was at that point I realized I had to adjust my workflow. One of the biggest lifts came from adding ticklers to my routine.
I define a tickler as a reminder of anything that I need to review on a future date. For example, a Slack thread where I’m waiting for a response. Or a good idea that comes up in a meeting that I don’t have time to process now but potentially will later. I generally structure ticklers in the form of simple questions:
Popular streaming services like Netflix make it challenging to find films older than a few years. As these services increasingly dominate our movie watching time, fewer will be watching older movies. The net effect accelerates an already on the rise movie monoculture dominated by Disney, DC, and Fast and Furious. Fewer films that aren’t blockbuster franchises get made.
The problem starts with streaming service UI patterns, most of which have the same opening interface: a big highlighted promo area up top, followed by long rows of thumbnail content segmented into categories. As I wrote earlier, categorization in the rows can feel arbitrary. Navigating through a single row requires too much horizontal scrolling. In addition, the promo area dominates the visual hierarchy but rarely offers more than a single movie or TV series at a time.
So streaming UI makes browsing dicey for any film. Considering older films tend to be a fraction of the content on the opening page, they, in turn, become exponentially more difficult to find.
Opinions around Microsoft’s 90 minute Xbox & Bethesda E3 showcase are positive, a highlight alongside Nintendo’s outing in an otherwise quiet E3 year. But there have been pockets of criticism around the show’s lack of depth and “wow factor.” VG247 argued there were not enough “next-gen show stoppers”. Threads on Resetera, social media, and Digital Foundry knocked the Xbox presentation for having too many CGI trailers.
I’m sympathetic to missing more hands on time with Microsoft’s upcoming lineup. However, much of this “depth” criticism is myopic, relevant to an earlier era where Microsoft’s core focus was on the number of games and consoles sold. Thirty trailers in ninety minutes may not be an optimal pitch for $70 games and $500 consoles. However, it is a very sound approach to push Game Pass.
E3 2021 has made it abundantly clear that Microsoft has bet Xbox’s future on subscriptions. Keeping gamers hooked on Game Pass is a different, tricker pitch than buying high profile games. Variety is a must, with enough titles and genres to attract a wide variety of subscribers. Quantity can also help. Not every game will interest a potential subscriber, but the feeling that many more games are coming to the service over time adds to its sense of value.